John Roche is an Associate Professor of English at Rochester Institute of Technology, where he advises the campus literary magazine, Signatures, and teaches a variety of literature and creative writing classes. He earned a BA from the University of Connecticut, Storrs, studying with George Butterick, Charles Boer, and Glauco Cambon, an MA from University College Dublin, and a PhD from SUNY Buffalo, studying with Robert Creeley and John C. Clarke. He has been granted four National Endowment for the Humanities fellowships and an SOS grant from the New York Foundation for the Arts. His full-length poetry collections, Topicalities (2008) and On Conesus (2005) are available from Foothills Publishing (Kanona, NY). His poems have appeared in magazines like Yellow Medicine Review, Flurb, House Organ, Big Bridge, Jack Magazine, Interim, Intent, Coe Review,The Woodstock Journal, Buff, The Burning World, and in several anthologies. He also edited the collection UNCENSORED SONGS: FOR SAM ABRAMS (Spuyten Duyvil, 2008), featuring poems by Amiri Baraka, Ed Sanders, Bob Holman, Anne Waldman, Andrei Codrescu, and other friends of the emeritus RIT professor. Dr. Roche sits on the Board of BOA Editions, one of the nation's leading non-profit poetry presses. He co-edited, with Patricia Roth Schwartz, an anthology of poetry by inmates at Auburn Prison called Doing Time to Cleanse My Mind (FootHills Publishing, 2009). His most recent collection is ROAD GHOSTS (2010), from theenk Books.
Your book seems to keep company with the likes of Kerouac’s On the Road, as well as other well-known travel books, two of my favorite being Robert Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, and William Least Heat-Moon’s Blue Highways. What did you discover about yourself in the writing of this collection?
Ah, you mention three of my favorite “road books,” Charlie! Then there’s Steinbeck’s Travels with Charlie and The Grapes of Wrath and Henry Miller’s The Air-Conditioned Nightmare. Do Moby Dick and Huckleberry Finn qualify as “road books?" One could go on, but to get to your question, and of course, unlike these examples, my book is poetry, to the extent that matters. I guess I discovered something about my ability to overcome fear, not just the dangers I confronted as a teenage runaway, but the fears of putting this material out there. I’ve been gratified by the responses I’ve gotten from readers. And I was pleasantly surprised to discover that my memory of that period was still so vibrant. If only last week or last month were equally clear! I also discovered something about my ability to tell a story, to create a narrative. My previous books were not so linear. That changes in the last, “Bardic Road” section, which I included fairly late in the revision process. It’s about the present, and about the “mythic present” that is the world of poetry. Some poets I admire believe that section brought the book to a necessary completion. I was just trying to find a thread from who I was at 17 to who I am today. That section also begins to take the book from “I” to “we,” as I create collective poet personae in poems like “Here’s for All” and “Joe the Poet.” The latter persona, appearing in various guises and in various places and centuries, will be the protagonist of my next book, “The Continuing Saga of Joe the Poet.”
Assuming these poems are autobiographical, I just have to ask, as the father of a teenager, What were you thinking? Or were you out of your mind? I suppose today’s adventuring teen buys a Eurail pass and slums from hostel to hostel with mom and dad’s credit card, or maybe the more socially-minded work on an organic farm. As a college professor, how would you compare today’s youth to the free spirit we read about in Road Ghosts?
Well as for me, the short answer is, yes, I was most certainly out of my mind, even without the hallucinogens. Eleven years of Catholic school can do that. But in a larger sense, the good ol’ US of A was going through a kind of total meltdown. Two Kennedys and Martin Luther King shot, killings of students at Kent State and Jackson State, riots in most of the urban centers, a senseless war that went on and on, the election of Nixon and Agnew. If you weren’t, as a young person, a bit crazy at that point there had to be something wrong with you!
Hard to generalize about today’s youth, of course, as there are as many variants as there are individuals. The road certainly seems to be a more dangerous place today. One doesn’t see many hitchhikers. Back then, there were dangers, obviously, but also, in the several years following Woodstock, a whole army of young people on the road, and thousands who sympathized and so felt protective of them (and of each other). I’m not sure that would be the case today, but in my more optimistic moods I’d like to think so. I run into some really committed environmental/anarchist/counter cultural youths from time to time, at poetry events at the Flying Squirrel Community Center, for instance, and some of them already have enough stories to fill several books, everything from working with the poor in Haiti or helping out in New Orleans after Katrina, to braving police violence at demonstrations, to surviving incarceration. And some of them are quite well read.
By the way, did you ever share any of these stories with your parents, and if so, what was their reaction?
My brothers and friends, yes. Very few with my parents (who are both dead now). They were daily mass Catholics, and quite conservative in most respects. Wonderfully loving people, however, just very different in their experience. Instead of “Easy Rider,” think “Going My Way.”
What do your students think about your Road Ghosts experience?
Well, only a couple of them have read Road Ghosts, to my knowledge, though four or five of them were at my launch party at the Bug Jar. They seemed to get something out of it. Of course, most of the feedback has come from people my age or a bit older, most of whom, even those outwardly conservative, RIT administrators and businessmen, had some story to relate from their own “misspent” youth. By the way, I’ll be reading with one of my students, Nicolas Eckerson, an incredibly talented poet, at Writers & Books on Tuesday September 13, 7:30 pm, as part of the Genesee series.
I love the mugging in the "City of Brotherly and the Quaker State." It wasn’t all about peace and love. In fact, that’s one of the book’s surprises. Talk about the disillusionment that took place, not only for you personally, but for the beats and hippies. I think you chronicle that quite well. In other words, what is the ancient division between stayers and strayers?
Yes, I wanted to show the era in all its complexity. We tend to have bifurcated, and equally misleading, characterizations of the Sixties/early Seventies. Either the David Horowitz/Newt Gingrich approach, which is to demonize the Counterculture and antiwar movement and blame all our current troubles on that legacy, or the opposite, viewing that era through Day-glo colored glasses. I was glad the Psychedelia and Op-Art show at the Memorial Art Gallery last fall avoided that kind of simplification. But there are so many examples. For instance, I noticed an ad seeking volunteer adult mentors in a local newspaper that said, “Do you remember Woodstock? If so, share it with a child.” Well, of course, that might land you in jail for contributing to the delinquency of a minor.
The division between “stayers” and “strayers” is not limited to any demographic. I suppose America, the land of mobility, has always tended towards the wanderer, as most of us are immigrants. Our collective heroes have been cowboys, astronauts, Plains Indians. I remember Gary Snyder had an essay several decades ago attacking this tendency, and arguing for staying power, rooting down on your homestead, which, of course, has also been a counter-tendency in America. Wendell Berry, too. Even Charles Olson had a line where he criticized the American tendency to run off to the moon when things got too complicated here.
What was your process in writing these memoir poems? Did you consult old journals? Was it all recollection? And how did this project come about now, after all these years? By the way, I think there’s a certain power when there’s been so much distance between the event and the actual writing. Talk about that too.
I did consult newspaper and Internet sources about the 1971 Mayday protests and Albuquerque uprising. I didn’t have much written material left from that period—I’ve moved so many times! One piece of serendipity was that my best friend from high school, Tony (now deceased and to whom the book is dedicated) had a couple of years ago found an old cassette he’d made interviewing me about a 1975 cross-country hitchhiking trip, and made a CD of it for me. That proved quite valuable in the “On the Road Again” chapter, and also helped me with the voice of the poems. I was also fortunate to find some old written journals, though not as many as I wish I’d saved. One prose poem, “Cowboy Days,” was actually culled from a longer prose piece I’d written in 1975 or 76. I sent the original to Michael Rothenberg at Big Bridge magazine (which was about to publish the online version of the book), and asked him if this extraordinary historical document might be printed verbatim. Michael was prudent to say, well, maybe you could edit it first.
As to your larger point, I agree that having the distance helped. I’d tried writing about these events many times when I was younger, but it was too soon. I also like to think my craft has improved, of course. I tend towards understatement these days, which is necessary when dealing with such “hot” material. I was pleased that legendary SF Beat poet David Meltzer noted my “detached camera eye” in his book blurb for Road Ghosts.
There’s an aside in “Lifesavers” that intrigues me –– “always the gab gets me out of or into trouble.” Still true for you, and if so how? I’m particularly interested in this as an aesthetic for writing, when we say too little or too much, when the eloquence is just right. How do you teach that, or how to you know it when you read it?
Ah, great question! I’m not sure one can teach that, except by example. It’s a sensibility that comes from years of reading and writing, though, like everything else, some pick up on it sooner and some later. I think it took me about thirty years to get in the “groove” and I’m still learning, so I guess that makes me a particularly slow learner. “Gab” is a great word. Like any poet, I’m attracted to the vernacular, especially when it has good “mouth feel.” Sets me thinking of Whitman’s “blab of the pave,” which is something I always try to listen for, and also about Seamus Heaney’s great poem, “Digging,” where he says, “The cold smell of potato mold, the squelch and slap / Of soggy peat, the curt cuts of an edge / Through living roots awaken in my head. / But I've no spade to follow men like them.” But follow we must, in our own plodding way and in our own sweet time.
"Southern Hospitality" made me think of Gregory Orr’s memoir, The Blessing, about his incarceration during his stint as a teen civil rights volunteer. The fact of the matter is that he could easily have been murdered. Talk about this part of your experience.
That’s one I should read. “Southern Hospitality” is a little poem near the beginning, where I get lost hitchhiking in rural Virginia after DC protests, and the gas station owner, a stereotypical cracker, tells me he hopes I never get home. That hit home to me the precariousness of my situation, you can be sure. There are references to a few similar hitchhiking situations in the book—people swerving at me and throwing bottles out the window in the Kentucky hills or getting picked up by a Klansman in East Texas (who fortunately tried to convert me rather than assault me). Few younger than forty would grasp just how polarized a country the US was in the late Sixties and early Seventies. Part of the reason for the camaraderie and “share the love” Woodstock spirit was, conversely, because longhairs were considered “white niggers” and needed to stick together, especially in rural areas. There’s that amusing song by one of the country rock bands from the early Seventies, where the narrator is in a redneck bar and his hat falls off, exposing his long hair, causing him to make a run for it. That was only slight exaggeration. Ironically, what changed it were the returning Vietnam Vets, many of whom had long hair and smoked dope. So the divisions got blurred. And in many places today, a long-haired, dope smoker might very well belong to the Tea Party.
I love the myth-making that takes place in “Song of Wandering Owsley,” your collaboration with Susan Deer Cloud, and all of that from the color orange. By the way, I happen to love oranges and scurvy will never be a problem for me. Talk about this collaboration and the process of myth-making in poetry. Talk about “Hitchhiking” too as I think it’s relevant to this discussion, especially your mention of Joseph Campbell’s Masks of God.
The orange in the poem refers, of course, to orange sunshine, mentioned more explicitly in the poem “Sunshine Night,” but also to Frank O’Hara’s poem “Why I Am Not a Painter,” which contains the lines, “There should be / so much more, not of orange, of / words, of how terrible orange is / and life.” This collaboration was something Susan and I came up with over email. Just a lark, really, but I’ve had a chance to read alternating stanzas of it with her on a couple occasions (including the Bug Jar book launch), and each time it was a gas. She tended to be responsible for the more upbeat, fairy tale lines, and mine tended to be the darker ones, but together, I think we hit a nice balance, depicting both the Sixties dream and the hard crash. Both are part of the package. “Hitchhiking” is a list poem, almost a ghazal, I suppose, a place to fit in so many memories into short vignettes. The book as a whole fits into Campbell’s mono myth of the hero’s journey, I suppose, even if it’s a confused and largely ineffectual hero. But so was Sal Paradise in On the Road, and so was Carlos Castaneda’s persona, so there’s probably good narrative reason to have the story told from the p.o.v. of the bumbler or sidekick rather than the strong hero (Watson rather than Holmes).
The tension between men and women during the sexual revolution is a well-known irony, one you bring to light especially well in “For What It’s Worth.” What was your take on it then versus now? How has this changed over the decades, especially from your perspective as a college professor?
Well, that poem is an attempt to give an accurate account of incidents that may have helped contribute to the start of the Albuquerque riot or uprising of 1971. I did consult some newspaper accounts of the time to refresh my memory about dates and so forth. The “punchline” of the poem comments on the new consciousness of “La Raza” that the largely Chicano uprisings in LA (1970) and Albuquerque echoed. So the poem is more about ethnicity than about gender, though there is the line referring to the County jail: “girls sexually assaulted by guards / guys left alone to boredom of stir.” That antithesis sums up nicely the greater risk women on the road or street were taking. At the time, I did consider myself a feminist (as now), but I hadn’t really read much about gender issues and shared a lot of the chauvinistic attitudes I’d grown up with, or absorbed from the bikers I hung out with. There were some really strong women, like the woman who called herself Scorpio who is the subject of another poem. But she found herself victimized over and over by a male-dominated culture that despised strong women. And, sad to say, there wasn’t much difference between Counter cultural males and cops and rednecks. I think it was Stokely Carmichael who said the only place for women in the Movement was prone.
So glad you worked Dylan into the collection, and his "Simple Twist of Fate." Tell me the story of the green jacket. So much what if implications here for you.
Thanks. Hope I don’t get sued! This prose poem reflects on the single fact of losing my denim jacket, which I’d checked at the visitor’s center at the Grand Canyon before hiking down to the Colorado River in 90+ heat. When I got back up, the center was locked, and my ride was leaving, so I had to forfeit the jacket, which had a series of implications that I dramatize in a cause-effect chain. The point being, as the “Butterfly Effect” and similar mathematical models have it, that if one changes one small variable tremendous differences may result down the line. I reflect on whether, given the freedom to withstand cold nights represented by the jacket, I might have decided to extend my journey more than three months, perhaps heading to the great Northwest, and perhaps an entirely different life if I’d eschewed college.
What was that homecoming like for you, and how might it compare and contrast with the soldiers coming home from the war?
Well, for me, it was much better than for most of the soldiers coming back. Far from the stereotype of hippies “spitting” at the vets, they were my heroes, the first people I smoked dope with, the VVAW activists on the front line of any demo, the folks you would meet in any homeless camp or shelter. So I knew something of their anguish, at second-hand, certainly, through their stories. Country Joe McDonald, by the way, was one of the few performers who really told those stories and worked for veteran’s rights. But all people remember him for was the “Fish” cheer at Woodstock.
My homecoming was emotional, lots of tears on both my part and on the part of my parents. But back in high school, I’d achieved a kind of mythic stature, as no one else had, in the history of this Catholic school, done anything equivalent. So it was easy, maybe a bit too easy. It wasn’t until college that I had to start confronting the darker side, the fool-heartiness of many of my decisions, the people I’d hurt, etc. Not that I was ever “repentant” in the conventional sense. I then and now still believe my actions were a necessary response to the conditions of my life at that point, and to the nation’s. I’ll always have some empathy for young people driven to extreme actions, whether it’s in Egypt or Syria or Britain. That’s why my prologue poem is called “Suicide Bomber.”
I love the image of the startled cat in “Reading Edgar Billowitz’s American Indians Fascicle...” Talk about your own unhurried amplitude at this stage of life? How is it finding its way into your work, both as a writer and teacher?
Another great question! In the poem I compare my old cat’s reaction at having accidentally tumbled 15 feet off a deck railing (surprised but unscathed) to a retired colleague’s observation that the aging have “unhurried amplitude.” That’s a luxury I envy at this stage of my life, where I’m constantly rushing off to department meetings, planning committee meetings, board meetings, business coffees, etc., as well as attending more than my share of poetry readings. It’s odd, but as an undergrad I always perceived professors as unhurried. Partly the misperception of youth, I’m sure, though that was a different era, no doubt, when faculty did not have to keep up with email and the many bombardments of the wired present, and probably had more autonomy. I do find that writing poems, like working in the garden or doing Tai Chi or Qi Gong exercises, is an opportunity to “slow time down,” or at least slow my own pulse down. It’s an exercise in concentrating attention. So it’s maybe an hour a day when I can achieve something like “unhurried amplitude.”
Tell me about Janine from “Janine’s Smile.”
Ah, Janine Pommy Vega was an amazing woman who died this past December. She used to come up to this area a couple times a year to teach poetry in the migrant camps around Mt. Morris, as well as to teach in various prisons. We’d often get together for dinner when she was in town, and I also visited her prison class at Eastern Correctional, near Kingston. Janine tells her story in Brenda Knight’s Women of the Beat Generation and also in a memoir called Tracking the Serpent. Talk about a life they should make a movie of! More intrepid than “Out of Africa.” Janine was a teenager in the Greenwich Village scene, shared a house with Ginsberg and Orlovsky, married a Spanish painter who died tragically, then she started her world travels, living as a hermit on an island in Peru, hiking the Himalayas and Andes and Amazon, traveling through India on pilgrimage, etc. Then came decades of working with prisoners and migrants. A blithe spirit! Enormously focused on the work of poetry and social justice. Many of her books are still available from Black Sparrow or City Lights.
Talk about the challenges of writing a political poem because it’s hard not to end up ranting, and by doing so, lose credibility with the unbelieving reader. There has to be the speaker’s own culpability. I think “To the Red Fox” is sly as a fox and pulls it off.
Thanks. That’s one of my favorites. It actually started as a writing exercise when Susan Deer Cloud came to visit my poetry class, a day or two after the lunch at Wheeler Hill described in the poem. Amazingly little revision was necessary. It quite wrote itself. That’s not something that happens very often, of course, but a nice surprise when it does! The poem begins as a kind of occasional poem, a planxty, I suppose, the old Irish genre in which a poet or musician thanks his hosts. O’Carolan did many of those. Then it just free associates on the word fox, and Fox news appears and so forth. Even though the poem didn’t start as political, the timing, a few days before Obama’s election, made it inevitable, I suppose, that the anxiety of that contest would rise to the surface. A poem of that sort, like any chaotic dynamic system, is “sensitive to initial conditions.” Sleepers arise. I did do quite a few overtly political poems in my previous book, Topicalities (FootHills 2008), but even there, I preferred to work by indirection or by black humor or some other device, rather than by pontificating. Probably the most popular poem from that collection (with several versions on YouTube), is “Baghdad Boogaloo,” a poem that utilizes spoken word and chant. Another is “Rick’s Cafe,” which does sort of pontificate, but only through the mouth of an Iraqi persona based loosely on Claude Rains’ character in Casablanca:
Rick's Café Américain in the Green Zone
Of all the bars
And all the stripes
And all the gin joints
And all the jingo
Why did you have to come into THIS desert land?
Why come into this land
With yr preening and yr strutting
Yr contractors and yr whores
Yr fast food courts and yr candy bars
Yr dogs and yr female guards
Yr Blackwater Black&Tans
Yr Humvees and yr hubris,
Why come into OUR desert land?
Why don’t you just go
And save us the trouble of having to kill you?
We’re the government here
We’re the cops
It’s your tax dollars at work
And we thank you very much for your generosity.
And after another IED takes out another GI (or three or four)
We’ll be happy to round up the usual suspects.
But don’t think this is the beginning of any beautiful friendship
It’s just business—something you understand, no?
Play it again, Uncle Sam,
Play it one more time,
Play it once for me,
O say, can’t you see?
I just saw an article in the NY Times saying the actual Rick’s Café in Iraq is being closed by the US military. The article says it entertained all kinds of bigwigs, and that Robin Williams slept there!
I’d like to say that these poems read like a chanted journal, or better yet, like Whitman on acid. I enjoyed the trip very much.
Thanks, Charlie.That’s a high compliment! I did my dissertation on Walt Whitman and still teach a Whitman class from time to time at RIT, as Sam Abrams had before me. Walt has a poem called “Chanting the Square Deific” that just came to mind. I think the incantatory aspect of poetry is essential. It’s earliest manifestation, probably, in Paleolithic nights. The “Bardic Road” section at the end of the book is where I let the music take over from the journalism and memoir. The longer poems like “Here’s For All,” “Joe the Poet,” “Reading Edgar Billewitz,” “Driving the Rainbow Bridge” are the ones I tend to read when backed up by musicians.
Great questions—really made me think.